They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
A Brief Exegesis of the Marcan Story of
The Gerasene Demoniac
Instantly, as we come ashore with Jesus, this pericope (Mark 5:1-13) brings the presence of evil to us. We find ourselves in a pagan land, in Gerasene, among the tombs, a place of outcasts, when immediately a man of unclean spirit meets Jesus. Observing this entrance setting, it is clear that the narrator is not going to present a calm repast, or respite from the turbulent seas Jesus has just calmed. In fact Jesus will face a powerful enemy, a legion of spirits.
This Marcan account of Jesus’s exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac is a lengthy historical narrative, appearing in the midst of miraculous works and healings. Jesus has healed a man’s withered hand in chapter three and stilled a stormy sea in chapter four. Later in this chapter the woman suffering from hemorrhages will be healed by her faith in Jesus’s power and He will awaken the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus from death. Jesus will continue doing miraculous works and healings as He prepares to teach the disciples more about his ministry’s mission and his power. In the verses that follow almost immediately after this pericope, Jesus uniquely instructed those present to “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what he mercy he has shown you . . . and everyone was amazed.”(Mark 5: 19-20)
The location on a pagan shore of the exorcism is important as it dramatically signifies the magnitude of the presence of evil that Jesus and His followers will face in the future. “The struggle of Jesus with the demonic is even more dramatic in the healing of the Gerasene madman … the pattern resembles that of the demoniac story in 1:21-28 including the recognition of Jesus’ identity.” (Brown, p.134) Here in Gerasene, Jesus has become fully engaged with greater evils, more than a storm or a sickness; He has entered a land full of evil, of unclean spirits and demons.
This Marcan text is narrative in nature, and illustrative in a prophetic manner of Christianity’s future battles. The narrator’s anonymity keeps the velocity of the text quick and clean of personal perspectives or involvements. “Mark’s story of Jesus is a story of conflict between Jesus and Israel, made up of the crowd and religious authorities . . . At the same time, while supernatural beings such as demons know Jesus’ identity as God’s son, human beings do not” (Kingsbury, p. 56) In this pericope’s beginning, “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes”(Mark 5:1), the story employs the crossing of the sea as a metaphor for bridging the distinction between Gentile and Jew within the ministry of Jesus.
The man named Legion coming out to meet Jesus and the demons within him identifying Jesus as the Son of God provide the core of the foundation for this exorcism.
Legion responds to Jesus, who within the notion of exorcisms, asks him to name himself by saying, “My name is Legion, for we are many” (Mark 5:9). The word Legion is frequently understood to mean a numerous group of Roman Soldiers, possibly suggesting both the size and hostility of the demons within him. The demons identification of Jesus also suggests a power and possibly an advantage in the combat to follow.
Quickly the tables are turned for Jesus as the demons offer to surrender the man and move into the unclean swineherd, surprisingly Jesus merely allowed them to pass, not using the traditional command to demons to “go out”. More surprisingly, Jesus’s exorcism is completed immediately by their drowning, signifying the vastness of Jesus’s power over such a large merged force of swineherd and demons. This text spends most of its energy preparing the stage, and magnifying the demon, followed by a very sudden victory over evil.
Theologically, evil is clearly granted the upper hand in this texts word count, and demonic possession is carefully defined as real and present. Its damage to this person in an unclean pagan land is illustrative of evil’s power if unchecked. A very important clarification and expansion of this text’s message appears in the Marcan account of another exorcist. When Jesus hears of another casting out demons, He says, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me.” (Mark 9:40) Here we learn that followers might cast out demons and that Jesus power will deny any evil in their deeds.
In summary, application of this pericope can enrich us in recognizing and engaging the challenge of evil. “The door has been opened to faith, but more will be required before anyone in the story—disciples, crowd, Gentiles or Jews will recognize Jesus as the Son of God.” (Moloney, p.106) Today we have received the benefit of the Resurrection to help us know who Jesus was, but recognizing evil in its many forms can remain an elusive challenge to our ministry. CS Lewis’s underwriting of the old notion that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist seems very timely, Uncle Screwtape said from below, “Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—“. (Lewis, ST Letter 7, p.140)
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1997.
Kingsbury, Jack Dean. Conflict in Mark, Minneapolis, Mn.: Fortress, 1989.
Lewis, C.S. Screwtape Letters, in Complete C.S. Lewis, New York, N.Y.: Harper One, 2002.
Moloney, Francis J. S.D.B. The Gospel of Mark, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002.